Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo has posted pictures of himself and his entourage enjoying VIP treatment over the past weekend at Manchester United’s stadium, Old Trafford, raising questions about how the trips were funded considering that tourism authorities had signed a secretive agreement with the club in 2019.
The value of the three-year sponsorship agreement signed with Visit Malta, originally put together by disgraced former tourism minister Konrad Mizzi was never disclosed to the public, with Mizzi outright denying reports that it had cost some €20 million.
Besides Bartolo, the entourage consisted of his partner Amanda Muscat and at least three of Bartolo’s employees at the ministry, including his official spokesperson Ayrton Mifsud and ministry employees Gabriel Mallia and Kearon Bruno.
The minister’s own social media posts confirm he is a long-time fan of the club, with the same applying for the aides identified in the pictures. Additional images from 2019 that were posted by another former employee of the ministry receiving similar treatment were also seen by this newsroom.
Some of the pictures, such as the ones below, were uploaded as temporary ‘stories’ on individual profiles, meaning they are now no longer visible on social media.
Questions have been sent to the same spokespersons about whether the trips were provided as sweeteners attached with the sponsorship deal and how many times such trips have been bought and paid for using sponsorship money if that was indeed the case.
While there have been press conferences involving high profile figures from Manchester United as well as photo ops with former players, not much has been seen to come out of the sponsorship agreement given that much marketing potential has been lost due to COVID travel restrictions.
One example of such a press conference was the ‘unveiling’ of the ‘first’ national anti-racism strategy policy document, a vague document which is similar to another such document published by the government last year and ‘unveiled’ by then-Parliamentary Secretary for Equality Rosianne Cutajar. The launch of the latest document was propped up by the announcement that former Manchester United player Dwight Yorke would be appointed as Malta’s ambassador for the cause.
In June, news reports outlined how then-tourism minister Julia Farrugia Portelli said the government was discussing ways in which the partnership could be used to make up for lost advertising effectiveness. However, that too seems to have fallen through, with one such attempt at resuscitating the sponsorship deal being likely foiled by the UK’s decision to place Malta on its travel ‘red-list ‘ for most of the summer.
Sports news outlets had claimed that Manchester United players would be coming to Malta for a training camp and a match against a local club. It is not known whether the plan was ever officially formalised and why it failed to happen, besides the logistical issues related to the pandemic likely playing a part.
The secrecy surrounding the agreement with Manchester United is in stark contrast with a similar deal that the tourism authorities had signed in 2008 with Sheffield United, given that the details of that deal had been disclosed.
While Manchester United is known as one of the biggest, most commercially successful football clubs in the world, its own fans have recently turned on it to pressure the owners of the club who are being accused of mishandling the club’s money.
Fans of the club across the globe boycotted the club’s revenue streams targeting in particular the 50 sponsors of the club of which Visit Malta forms part. Fans were outraged by a proposal for Manchester United to be one of six clubs to join a breakaway super league, a plan which was so unanimously rejected by supporters over the globe that it had to be scrapped.